Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee says the city is dozens of officers behind its peer cities across the country.
As part of an ongoing series of presentations to Boise City Council about the police department, Lee expressed concerns about the department’s staffing levels as the city grows. Boise currently has only 1.28 officers for every 1,000 residents, second to last in comparison to five other similarly sized cities across the country.
Only Lincoln, NE has fewer at 1.23 officers per 1,000 residents. Little Rock tops out the group of cities with 2.86 officers per 1,000 residents. In order to put Boise in the middle of the pack, Lee estimates Boise would have to add between 40 and 50 sworn officers.
He said this issue will get even more pressing as Boise’s population grows toward 300,000 residents, because crime studies across the study show when cities hit the population threshold from 300,000 to 400,000 crime begins to increase exponentially. To try and keep crime low Lee said the city can invest in other areas, but the need for officers will still increase.
“If we recognize the major drivers of crime in America are poverty and addiction related issues, I think investments that address those two issues will help,” he said. “Also heavily investing in that community policing approach that has shown to keep the increase lower. There are things we can do to make (population growth) less impactful to us, but it will be an impact.”
New administration, same issue
Lee’s warning about the need for more officers echoes the findings of a 2018 staffing analysis report completed by the department. The report, which mayoral candidate Brent Coles used as a talking point last year, said the city needed 54 additional officers. Since then, the city worked to add an additional 35 officers to meet demand while also balancing fiscal responsibility, Acting Chief Ron Winegar told the Idaho Press in 2019.
The department had plans to add five additional officers to the force in fiscal year 2021, but discussions about police funding following George Floyd’s death shifted discussions. In a 3-2 vote, Boise City Council voted to increase the police budget roughly $1 million and add five positions, but they will be used to expand some of the department’s specialty divisons. Spokeswoman Haley Williams said the department will use the new funding to add another officer on the behavioral health team, starting a “services coordination” team to assist with connecting residents to substance abuse counseling and adding a position in the training division. The other two positions will be added in patrol and the community outreach division.
The amount of time officers have between calls to do community policing, foot patrols or other activities has sharply decreased in the past decade, Lee said. In August 2009, officers had roughly half of their time dedicated to responding to calls and the other half was “discretionary time” to proactively patrol or make connections with community members. Now, Lee said officers spend 80% of their time answering calls for service.
“We’ve structurally designed the police department to have community policing, but that personal connection with the officer who may respond to your 911 call at 2 a.m. is much more challenging for us to do with this diminishing discretionary time between calls,” he said.
Lee: More work on diversity ahead
Lee said BPD’s demographics are representative of the community in some areas, but others need room for improvement. Two percent of Boiseans are Black, which is less than the 3% of BPD’s staff that are, Lee said. However, 9% of Boise is Latino, but only 4% of the officers are. This includes the most recent academy class where half the graduates were Latino.
Another area of concern for Lee was the amount of women on the force. He said only 11% of officers are women, which is below the 13% average of the peer cities. Only two of those women are in supervisory roles.
Lee said the force will continue recruiting efforts to boost numbers of women on the force, which could include taking a look at some of the requirements to ensure they are not having the unintended consequences of discouraging applicants.
“One of the physical assessment standards is the ability to do 22 pushups,” he said. “For many men, that may not pose a significant challenge. For many women, that could be a barrier that is hard to pass and I have never seen a situation in my policing career I was able to solve by the number of pushups I did, so maybe we can adjust that.”